I am searching for a good definition and fitting examples of intransitive verbs. For example one not helpful example from Wikipedia:

„Gehen“ ist intransitiv. Man kann nicht etwas oder jemanden gehen.

Yes I can! I can say: Ich gehe den Weg (entlang). So fail. The example doesn’t make it clear. Next one:

„Essen“ dagegen ist ein transitives Verb: „Ich esse einen Fisch“ (Subjekt – Prädikat – Akkusativobjekt).

I can say: Ich esse (gerade), which is a perfectly fine phrase and it doesn’t require anything added to it. So both of the examples don’t work.

At the same time I am searching for examples, which are really clear and beginner vocabulary.

A precise and easy to understand definition for transitive verbs for foreigners learning German would also be nice to have.


I've got an idea here: One could say a verb can be transitive within a phrase. This way, you'd always check the phrase first and look for that accusative object. If it's there, you have a transitive verb. Depending on that, you could conclude for example, whether to use haben or sein in a Perfekt sentence. -- Is there any problem with this approach?

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    The gehen example seems sound. In your sentence, Ich gehe den Weg entlang, den Weg is governed by the postposition entlang; it is not the object of gehen. Generally, many verbs can be used in a transitive or intransitive way. – chirlu Apr 5 '16 at 12:10
  • @chirlu true, if you really have the entlang there, but think about the phrase without it. Still a good phrase. I am trying to give examples for usage of haben or sein in Perfekt, but those require knowing, if a Verb is transitive or intransitive. If it is both, then how can someone learning the language know which to use? It's hard to explain then : / – Zelphir Kaltstahl Apr 5 '16 at 12:18
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    *...den Weg entlang... is not an accusative object that would make "gehen" transitive - Here it is what they call eine adverbiale Bestimmung. (The road is not being "treated" by the action, thus not an object, but rather a description how|when|where something is done.). Check if you can ask for it: "Wen gehe ich?" doesn't make a lot of sense, so "der Weg" is not an object in accusative, so "gehen" is not transitive. q.e.d – tofro Apr 5 '16 at 17:15
  • @tofro Hmmm that sounds strange. Even in my imagination I always think of den Weg gehen as something that I do to the way, because my feet are hitting it while I walk on it. It's not really a good example I think, because one can interpret it like I do, too. Wouldn't the interpretation as adverbiale Bestimmung only make it more complicated to understand? – Zelphir Kaltstahl Apr 5 '16 at 17:24
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    @Zelphir: No, you can't interpret it like you do, sorry. You also cannot "Den Hund gehen" in German, which you can perfectly do in English - Still it's wrong in German ;) – tofro Apr 5 '16 at 18:09

Basically, the wikipedia definition is perfectly correct, although I agree that the choice of the examples could be better.

„Gehen“ ist intransitiv. Man kann nicht etwas oder jemanden gehen.

This is true. Anyway, there are idioms like "Den Weg gehen" which exist without caring for grammatical correctness.

„Essen“ dagegen ist ein transitives Verb: „Ich esse einen Fisch“ (Subjekt – Prädikat – Akkusativobjekt).

This is true as well. BUT: The are in fact some verbs which can appear as a transitive or intransitive verb. There are not many of them, but they exist and they don't make it easier ;)

In a nutshell:

You have to combine a transitive verb with an object which can be anything you like. This is not possible with intransitive verbs. Nevertheless, there are some words which exist as both transitive an intransitive verbs.

So your arguments are true in some way, but don't change the correctness of the general definition.

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To simplify matters, let's look into what my kids learn at school:

Transitive verbs can take an object in accusative (do something to someone/something) Transitive verbs can form the "Vorgangspassiv" (something is done to someone/something)

As simple as that.

Reality is a bit less simple, though, but this was the definition my kids had to use. Everything beyond that is called science :)

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  • I've got an idea here: One could say a verb can be transitive within a phrase. This way, you'd always check the phrase first and look for that accusative object. If it's there, you have a transitive verb. Depending on that, you could conclude for example, whether to use haben or sein in a Perfekt sentence. -- Is there any problem with this approach? – Zelphir Kaltstahl Apr 5 '16 at 15:08
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    @Zelphir Yes. Main problem: It's wrong ;) Being transitive is an immutable property of a verb - It doesn't change with every other sentence. Maybe over generations of speakers, maybe we can "den Hund gehen" someday, but you wouldn't want to wait that long ;) – tofro Apr 5 '16 at 21:19
  • read again. I did not state it needs an accusative object – tofro Apr 7 '16 at 9:37
  • @yggdrasil This won't convince you, won't it?: Duden: transitiv: ein Subjekt und ein Akkusativobjekt fordernd, passivfähig (Verb/ Verbvariante); auf den Objektaktanten „zielend". Note: My answer was targetted at the average non-native speaker. What you are trying to discuss is "science" in the sense of the above answer. Fine with me, but would probably not help the OP – tofro Apr 7 '16 at 14:42
  • And: "helfen" is commonly considered an intransitive verb – tofro Apr 7 '16 at 14:51

Transitive verbs are verbs with an accusative object ("Wen?" or "Was?"). Examples:

Sie macht Urlaub an der Nordsee. (to do sth)

Die Kinder kaufen Äpfel. (to buy sth)

Die Frau liebt ihren Mann. (to love someone)

With transitive verbs you can form a passive. Example:

Urlaub wird an der Nordsee gemacht.

Äpfel werden (von den Kindern) gekauft.

Ihr Mann wird (von ihr) geliebt.

Intrasitive verbs are used without an accusative object. Examples:

Sie ist an der Nordsee.

Die Sonne geht unter.

As well as reflexive verbs:

Sie erholt sich am Strand.

Usually you can't form an passive with intransitive verbs.

Now the important part, that confuses you probably: Depending on the meaning, some verbs can be transitive AND intransitive. Example:

Das Schiff fährt Passagiere nach Irland. (in terms of "to move something/someone") - transitive)

Ein Schiff fährt auf dem Meer. (in terms of "to move" - intransitive)

Another example:

Ich hänge das Schild an die Wand. (transitive)

Das Schild hängt an der Wand. (intransitive)

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For starters, there is more than one definition of transitivity out there. The German Wikipedia points out that traditional (German) school grammar only considered verbs with an accusative object transitive, so etw.{akk} essen would be considered transitive but jdm. helfen would not. It also mentions that modern linguistics consider transitivity in a more broader sense as highlighted below.[citation needed]

Canoo.net also follows the idea of transitive verbs being those with an accusative object but also constructs an additional distinction between ‘true’ transitive verbs that can form a passive voice and ‘pseudotransitive’ verbs that cannot form a passive. An example for a pseudotransitive verb would be haben: ‘Das Buch wird gehabt’ does not make sense.

christianlehmann.eu uses the formal definition of a direct object that the English Wikipedia also uses. He notes that in German, being able to form a passive voice (with a subject) is sufficient and necessary for a direct object while in English it is merely necessary.

Note that the introductory statement of the German Wikipedia article on transitivity is that a verb is transitive if it takes exactly two arguments,[1] so jdm. helfen would be transitive despite that forming a passive without a subject.

All sources more or less agree that there are verbs that can be used both transitively and intransitively, essen or trinken being examples of those. However note that the meaning is a tad different in each case and some languages may use different verbs depending on whether the transitive usage or the intransitive is required: ich esse just means I am shoving food into my mouth while ich esse das Brot concentrates more on the bread and not on the process of eating.

Now depending on the definition, the only verbs that are clear are those that clearly require at least one (direct) object and thus are clearly transitive. *Ich erschieße is an invalid sentence and thus erschießen must be transitive. So there is no easy rule around.

Still, for many verbs one type of usage is overwhelmingly common thus leading to the other usage being almost forgotten.

[1]: Arguments are add-ons for verbs that cannot be omitted without drastically changing the meaning. Many verbs in passive voice are essentially zero-argument:

[…], dass gearbeitet wurde.

The sentence works without anything, there is no subject and no object. Verbs with one mandatory argument include leben:

Ich lebe.

And finally, two or more arguments would always include a subject and at least one object:

Ich helfe dir.

Ich mag dich.

Ich stelle dich ihm vor.

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  • The point about drastically changing the meaning is helpful. Thanks for your answer. However I disagree with the following: "Ich erschieße is an invalid sentence [...]". To me it seems to be like "Ich gehe." It's simply about what one person does at that moment, not about where to or whom. For example: "Was machst du?" "Ich erschieße." – I think that's valid, even if unusual. – Zelphir Kaltstahl Apr 28 '16 at 1:58
  • @Zelphir No, I want to counter that. I am immediately tempted to ask ‘Wen?’ or ‘Was?’. If it were merely the act of shooting, I would choose ‘Ich schieße’. – Jan Apr 28 '16 at 8:39
  • Then you'd change the meaning, because schießen does not imply killing, while erschießen does. I am not saying Ich erschieße. sounds not weird. I am saying it seems valid even if very unusual and of course if someone said such a phrase, I'd also think Wen? or Was?, because we are not used to hear it in such a phrase, however, I still think it's a valid phrase. – Zelphir Kaltstahl Apr 29 '16 at 1:57

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